This is the fifth story in a mini-series called The Month of Eight Countries, which is about the countries Bruno and I are visiting this month as part of our 4,000km overland transit between Turkey and France. The previous instalments of the series were on Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia and Slovenia.
I’m standing in a piazza, gazing through a restaurant window. Inside, carafes of red wine and bread baskets rest on top of red and white checkered tablecloths. People smile and chat as they feast on homemade pasta topped with shaved parmeggiano, creamy wine-infused risotto, and rich tiramisu. I’m standing in the piazza, chowing down on my slice of takeaway pizza, filled with longing and envy.
What did I expect? I was traveling in Italy as a university graduation present to myself. I was a broke backpacker, staying in hostels with fourteen beds to a room, swiping extra bread and jam at the buffet breakfasts to eat later in the park. Did I really think that fine Italian food would be accessible to me?
On that trip, nearly a decade ago, I decided that Europe wasn’t made for broke twenty-something backpackers. Many might disagree with me, but the type of experience I wanted to have in Europe was of the parmeggiano-risotto variety. I promised myself that I’d return to Italy in my thirties and do it right.
Apparently, I underestimated the age at which I could properly “do” Italy.
When I realized that Bruno and I would pass through Italy during our overland transit from Turkey to France, I immediately knew what I wanted from the country: to eat as much Italian food as possible. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to faithful readers who have followed along as I ogled over Turkish food, Ethiopian food, French food, and Tanzanian food (and that’s only in the last year). Our five nights in Italy would be a quest for me to compensate for my lack of “proper” Italian cuisine the first time around.
Yet, when I envisioned this quest, I forgot to factor in inflation and the fact that I don’t have a job any more than I did on my backpacking trip to Italy. In the last decade, Italy got more expensive, but my budget didn’t.
Italy was insultingly expensive. You had to pay for everything. A euro to use the toilet, two to sit at a table. Even in the campsites, every tiny thing was charged. Extra for wifi, extra for electricity, extra for running water! When I wandered around towns and villages to scour menus, it wasn’t in search of vegetarian options, but of reasonable prices.
Realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to live it up in Italy like I’d imagined a decade ago (because, let’s face it, I was envisioning five-course meals), I set myself a new goal: to walk around and take in Italian architecture and culture.
This was a much easier goal to achieve, in one sense. Italy isn’t one of the top tourist destinations for nothing – their towns have innate charm and their culture is tangible at every turn. On the other hand, you have to reach the towns to appreciate them. This is easier said than done in a camping car as wide as many of the old streets we wanted to pass though. Factor in crazy Italian drivers, no atlas, and one-way cobblestone streets and we had ourselves a very stressed-out driver.
Still, Bruno knew how much I wanted to achieve my secondary goal. He kindly accepted to camp in the parking lot just outside the 16th century Venetian outer wall of the fortified city of Verona. There were no toilets and we were surrounded by the mass of camping cars we usually try to avoid. But we were within walking distance of the historical town, which included one of the largest and best-preserved Roman arenas, the house of Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet), Gothic cathedrals, and Roman walls and bridges.
But it was the little things in Verona that charmed us both from the get-go. Italy seriously has some of the most beautiful architecture in the world. They pay attention to detail and form. They have visionary urban planners. Bruno and I delighted ourselves in slowly walking around, wandering down main streets, weaving through alleys, and getting lost in side streets. We admired window panes, statues, and wall frescoes. We pointed out old door handles and ancient pieces of wall. We rejoiced in every little detail. Verona was a living museum.
I may have rejoiced in Italian culture even more than in its architecture. I sat at the edge of a water fountain in the center of a piazza, listening to beautiful, singsong Italian all around me, and watched the locals. Some of them were opening their window shutters, sipping late-morning espressos with heads leaning over balconies. Others were sat at cafés watching the activity in the piazza. Their chairs all pointed outwards, to the world. It was a surprising contrast to catch several different groups of Asians sat at café tables sipping their own espressos with their heads in their Iphones.
That night, on the recommendation of a local, Bruno and I headed to Verona’s San Zeno square for dinner. I didn’t plan to eat a fancy five-course meal like I’d originally hoped for, but that didn’t mean Bruno and I couldn’t enjoy a more modest Italian meal on the town. We sat outside and sipped on a carafe of red wine, surrounded by boisterous locals doing the same. We shared pizza and pasta, then went next door for a nocciola gelato (hazelnut, my favorite) as a nightcap. We watched the Basilica di San Zeno, and the nearby multicolour shops, light up in stormy evening light. Italian culture and architecture really is the best.
I didn’t expect to be as impressed with Italian scenery. So far, between the charm of the towns lay flat fields, vineyards, industrial buildings, and more ugly modern development than I’d expected. But as we headed north toward the Alps its collection of lakes, I found myself once again snapping photos from the passenger seat.
We anchored on romantic Lac d’Orta. Our “low cost” campsite was a much-appreciated change from parking lots – especially the view of the medieval village of Ronco on the other side of the lake. Though we needed part of a day to catch up on laundry and internet, we eventually took our bikes into San Guilio, a charming town on a peninsula that juts out into the lake like a uvula. If it was possible for a place to be more charming than Verona, this was it. San Guilio’s piazza was on the edge of the water, facing an island with an old Romanesque basilica. Another church, with beautifully faded frescoes, stood on one end of the square. Pastel-colored buildings full of pretty windows lined the back. Shops sold multi-colored pasta, alcohol in beautiful bottles, amaretto cookies, and gelato. I ate gelato again, for the fifth day in a row.
Beyond the piazza were covered alleys and side streets that led to the water. There were water garages for boats, like I remember seeing in Venice. We found a walking path on the edge of the water that circumnavigated the town. Charming homes and bright flowers lined the path. Ducks waddled in the water. I could easily see myself adding a basket to the front of my bike and riding into town every day from my hilltop countryside home for a fresh baguette and a bottle of red.
On our last night in Italy, we sat down for wine, risotto, and eggplant parmesan. It was only the campsite restaurant, and we weren’t sharing a five-course meal, so it may not have been the Italian dining experience I’d longed to have nine years before. But here I was, sprinkling (ok, more like dousing) my eggplant with freshly-grated parmeggiano after spending the afternoon taking in the best of Italian architecture, culture, and natural beauty.
I’ll save the five-course Italian meal for my forties, because, for now, this was just fine.